I had to fight tooth and, er, claw to keep A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) on this list. Jay didn't want it to be included but I insisted you can't get an accurate history of horror without it. So, he pouted and said he wouldn't contribute. I, of course, badgered the hell out of him until he said something. I'll include his comments at the end.
Three, four, better lock your door.
Five, six, grab your crucifix.
Seven, eight, gonna stay up late.
Nine, ten, never sleep again.
From the beginning of the movie, when you see Freddy shaping his "finger-knives" (as Nancy calls them), you get the sense that you're in for something unusual. I love that they start the movie by giving your a glimpse of how Freddy became what he became but don't rush to explain why he became it. It builds tension.
As the movie starts, with Tina running from Freddy, I was struck by how absolutely ridiculous it was. Watch Freddy run. He's like a clown. It would be comical if it weren't so damned scary. That sets the tone for the rest of the movie; Freddy laughs, and jokes, and does some really stupid stuff - but is still absolutely terrifying. If anything, the way that Freddy japes around makes him more frightening than if he were dead sombre the whole way through. He's just having a good time. You're running for your life but he's just amusing himself. Yeah, that's scary as shit.
In fact, it's so scary that A Nightmare on Elm Street gave me nightmares for years as a child. Now, I get to fall asleep with a poster of A Nightmare on Elm Street looming over my bed. (My husband's poster, I might add, even though he thought the movie was "overrated".) And, yes, Freddy still makes the odd guest appearance in my nightmares.
Next up, we get an introduction to the rest of the main cast. Heather Langenkamp's Nancy is your typical good girl, while Jsu Garcia's Rod is your typical bad boy. The leather jacket and greased-back hair have been used all through cinematic history to say, "This kid, he's no good." Which is, of course, what everyone thinks when his girlfriend, Amanda Wyss's Tina, dies. It's an old trope but one that always works.
And, of course, there's Johnny Depp. (Cue longing sigh.) A Nightmare on Elm Street was Depp's first role - a role he owes, if the rumours are true, to his friend, Nicolas Cage. It's crazy now to see Johnny Depp in Nightmare. He's just... so... young. I feel like we should called him Fetus Depp for the purposes of this blog post. But, if I start talking about Johnny "Fetus" Depp now, we're never going to make it to the good stuff. So...
When Tina is attacked during the illicit sleepover scene, you see Freddy with her under the blankets but, when they're ripped away, all you see is her flesh being torn open before she's picked up by an invisible hand and thrown around the room. Those are really wild effects. You can practically feel Rod's disbelief. Would you believe it if you saw that happen before your eyes? I know I wouldn't. And that's another thing that makes Freddy so scary; his victims can see him but no one else can, which leads to all kinds of questioning your/their sanity and a general sense of wtf.
Let's take a moment to appreciate John Saxon as Nancy's father, Lt. Thompson. Saxon is a brilliant actor, with a massive acting pedigree. It has to be said that Saxon's performance as police officer/daddy/saviour is so well acted that it helps, um, buoy some of the, er, less well acted performances from his younger co-stars. (Okay, so what I'm trying to say is that, at the time, Heather Lagenkamp couldn't act her way out of the proverbial paper bag.)
Speaking of brilliant actors, did you notice who Nancy's teacher is? Yes! None other than Insidious's Lin Shaye. I may have given a little squeal of delight when I re-watched the movie recently and realised who it was. Lin Shaye has done so well in later life that I wonder, if you put them side-by-side, who would be more recognised today, Heather Langenkamp or Lin Shaye? Just a random thought...
A Nightmare on Elm Street, in true dreamlike fashion, transforms seamlessly from waking to sleep. The scene in the classroom becomes surreal as Nancy looks up to find her friend, Tina, in a bloody body bag calling out to her. The student's reading takes on a sinister whisper and Nancy rises to follow her dead friend down the hall. The great part about this scene isn't the hall monitor in Freddy's signature sweater, or the pile of leaves blowing behind Nancy; it's the foreshadowing.
As Nancy moves into the school's basement - and really, whose school ever had a basement? - you see the flames from the furnace. The audience doesn't know why that's important yet so that's a really great piece of foreshadowing. A Nightmare on Elm Street has really good pace, which too many horror movies lack.
We've already had a couple of real gross-out moments this far into the film. First, there was the moment when Tina reached out to grab Freddy's face, only to have the twisted, burnt flesh peel away and reveal the muscle and bone underneath. (Ew.) Then, there's the moment in the school basement when Freddy gashes his own stomach to release green ooze and maggots. (Double Ew.) I never really think of A Nightmare on Elm Street as being a gross-out film but there certainly are those elements.
When Nancy goes to visit Rod in prison, she's desperate to convince herself that what she saw, what he saw, wasn't real. She already believes but she doesn't want to believe. This goes back to that feeling of, 'Can I trust what I saw?" If you can make someone doubt themselves, you can isolate them from the people around them and that makes for a sense of hopelessness. Not to mention great horror.
I almost don't want to talk about the bathtub scene because it scarred me so badly as a child. It's also the reason I'm terrified of falling asleep in the tub now and can't use bubble bath without having a panic attack. Thanks, Freddy.
There are some really out there moments in A Nightmare on Elm Street. In any other movie, you'd be like, 'Omg. That would never happen,' but that doesn't apply in the Nightmare films because you're talking about dreams and anything can happen in a dream. Nancy gets sucked under the bathwater and is suddenly in a whole new world. Okay. I mean, I've had weirder dreams, right? It's the fact those dreams can hurt you - can kill you - that makes the Nightmare films work. Our dreams, or nightmares, are still safe, no matter how scary they might be, because we can always wake up from them. Nightmare makes us doubt the reality of that.
As Nancy struggles not to fall asleep after her bath, you'll notice a nod to Evil Dead, which is playing on the television. This is something that happens quite a lot in Craven and Raimi films. Read this for more on that.
"Oh, God. I look twenty-years-old."
Wes Craven's Scream is another movie that I wanted on this list but got vetoed by Jay. I suppose this is a good time to mention it, though, since Glen is sneaking in through Nancy's window. If you missed how much Screams Billy Loomis looks like Nightmare's Glen Lantz, you haven't been paying attention.
Scream pays homage to A Nightmare on Elm Street in so many fabulous ways, from straight-up mentioning the movie, to the way Billy climbs through the window, to the Janitor in Freddy gear (who, by the way, was Wes Craven himself.) For those of us who grew up on the Nightmare films, it was a real treat so see it honoured that way.
In the scene where Nancy goes to the jail in her dream (and Glen proves himself to be the most useless boyfriend ever), there's a lot happening. First of all, you get that creepy ass grin from Freddy (Robert Englund has some crazy eyes), you get the bugs crawling out of Tina's mouth (Eww), and the only-in-dreamland quicksand stairs. You've also got something else happening, too, something you don't want to miss.
Freddy tells Nancy who he is. Yeah, bitch, I'm the boogeyman all the local kids are afraid of and I'm real. Oh, and by the way, I'm gonna kill you. There have been hints all along that the baddie is Freddy but to have him confirm it moves the story along. Now, we can find out the baddie's origin story. (And, of course, to name something is to give it power)
But, before we get to Freddy's origins, we've gotta say farewell to Bad Boy Rod. He's been in that cell by himself for ages. Freddy could've slashed him to bits at any time - but he didn't. Why? Why make it look like an accident? Isolation. Never underestimate the power of isolation. It makes the remaining victims doubt their own sanity and adds to the cat-and-mouse game Freddy's got going.
"I don't know who he is, but he's burned
and he wears a weird hat
and a red and green sweater, really dirty.
And he uses these knives, like giant fingernails..."
I mentioned before about the way Freddy made his victims doubt their sanity. This is where Nancy's parents start doing the same. Nancy's mother takes her for tests, desperate to convince herself that he's really gone. And when Nancy pulls Freddy's hat out of the dream, her mother's worst nightmares (pardon the pun) come true.
The truth comes out. Fred Krueger was a "filthy child murderer who killed at least 20 kids" and Nancy's parents helped kill him. Vigilante justice for the win! That's the part of the movie that really gets me. Freddy should have died. It was right that they killed him. (In my opinion.) So why does he get the chance to come back and avenge himself upon their children? He was in the wrong to start with! He doesn't get a second chance! Except, of course, that he does.
Apparently death isn't any more fair than life.
Hey, Glen, you know how you screwed up before when I was counting on you but it's okay because I love you? I'm going to give you another chance to not screw up. Silly Nancy... And cue another childhood fear. I still get nervous around beds that are a little too soft, a little too comfortable. The blood spraying all over the room was a little hard to stomach (that difference between what can happen in dreams and what can happen in real life) but the whole being sucked into the bed thing... for some reason, that seemed all too possible to Young Wondra.
Nancy's off looking for Freddy so I'm going to take a moment to appreciate the soundtrack to A Nightmare on Elm Street. It's brooding and sinister, without being over-the-top. It's an accent, rather than a statement. When you get that soundtrack, with the voices of Freddy's victims overlaying it, it becomes even creepier.
There are a couple of things I haven't touched on yet but I want to. First of all, it's a sign of the time it was made that Nancy's parents are divorced but they don't make a big deal out of it. My friends and I grew up during this time and half of us had parents who were divorced, so it was nice that Nightmare made being a child of divorce so normal. It's little touches like that that really make a film either stay relevant or become dated. A Nightmare on Elm Street is still relevant today (and should never, ever, ever have been remade.)
The other thing I wanted to mention takes us right up to the end. No matter how different Nancy wants to believe she is from her mother, they're both coping with the reality of Freddy's existence in similar, if different, ways. Nancy's mother locks the house up tight, with bars on the windows. Nancy learns how to booby trap the fuck out of the house. Mamma goes for defence, while Nancy goes on the offence - which highlights the generation gap pretty well.
You have got to love the ending to A Nightmare on Elm Street. There's this moment where you think all that positive-thinking crap has won... then, NOPE. The roof comes down on the car (complete with iconic Freddy stripes) and Freddy comes through the window to grab Nancy's mother. What a great way to end a movie that's all about doubting reality. It leaves you hanging, wondering what really happened. Perfect.
We'd be here all day if I started talking about the sequels, so I won't. All I will say is that A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors is my favourite but I thought they were all good fun. Okay, now, I'm going to pass it over to Jay to finish up.
I went to see 'A Nightmare on Elm Street' because I was killing time. It didn't frighten me but, then, I never rated Wes Craven. I understand why people rave about his stuff but he was never one of my favourite directors.
It made Robert Englund a household name, turned him from a supporting actor to a mainstream actor and an icon of horror. You can't make that many sequels without there being something there.
I knew tons of people 'A Nightmare on Elm Street' frightened the shit out of, but not me. I understand the merits of the film but it wasn't for me. The imagery was good and the lighting was good but that's all I can really say.
That's all for today, folks. Check back tomorrow for another classic horror movie.